Past experience can generate expectations. Certainly, when they signed Rafael Furcal to a three-year, $39 million deal following the 2005 season, the Dodgers believed that the former Braves leadoff batter would provide a significant spark to their offense. He did not disappoint in 2006, finishing 14th in NL MVP voting. Last year, however, a nagging ankle injury suffered in spring training kept him out of action for the first couple of weeks as well as the final weeks of the season; it also hindered his production level during the 138 games in which he played. A player whose modus operandi involves speed playing with an ankle injury is not a good combination.
Similarly, when Joe Torre signed on to manage the team this offseason, he was fresh off of managing a shortstop that happened to be the longtime face of the most prominent franchise in sports. He may have known his new shortstop could produce at an all-star level even, after that rough 2007. Suffice it to say he could not possibly have had any idea Furcal would be this productive.
It’s doubtful that anyone really could have known that, through 32 games, Furcal would be capable of posting a .366/.448/.597 slash line, rank in the top five in VORP, and post an OPS of 1045; his OPS+ of 169 suggests his performance has been 69 percent better offensively than a league-average player. I say it’s doubtful anyone saw this coming in part because, from the time he Pipp-ed Walt Weiss in 2000 until now, he had only experienced a handful of 32-game stretches with an OPS over 1000, and all of them came between April 13th and June 15th back in 2003.
How has he been doing this? Before getting into the Pitch F/X data, take a look at his balls in play statistics:
Year AVG BABIP LD% GB% FB% xBABIP 2006 .300 .335 20.9 49.9 29.2 .329 2007 .270 .298 18.7 49.7 31.6 .307 2008 .366 .386 17.9 49.1 33.0 .299
In his first two years as a Dodger his line-drive frequency did a great job of predicting his BABIP. This year, however, he has greatly exceeded what his LD% would suggest. While it is not entirely uncommon for players to exceed their xBABIP for an entire season, conventional wisdom says that either Furcal will regress towards expectations as the year goes on, or this will not be a great indicator of what to expect in subsequent seasons.
Using the Baseball Info Solutions swing data available at Fangraphs, we can see that Furcal is laying off of more pitches outside of the strike zone than last year; however, he is making contact more often. From 2006 to 2007 he increased his swing frequency at pitches out of the strike zone from 19 percent to 26 percent; the amount of pitches seen in the strike zone drastically decreased from 51.8 percent to 40.1 percent. The likely reason for seeing fewer pitches in the zone deals with his increased tendency to swing out of the zone. Consider the proposition from the pitcher’s perspective: Why throw something in the zone that could potentially hurt you if the batter has shown a lack of recent plate discipline? Take a look at Furcal’s performance on pitches outside the zone (O-Swing% and -Contact%) and inside of it (Z-Swing% and Z-Contact%):
Year O-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Swing% Z-Contact% Zone% 2007 26.2 79.2 68.1 95.0 40.1 2008 23.5 83.3 62.7 95.7 43.6 Career 21.0 75.4 63.5 95.1 48.7
This year, Furcal’s frequency of pitches seen in the strike zone and rates of swinging are closer to his career averages. Despite this, his contact rates have all increased. This poses another possible explanation for his hot start–more contact equals more opportunity for that contact to result in hits.
Moving into the Pitch F/X data, what pitches does this former Rookie of the Year see in certain counts and what are the results of those pitches? And how are pitchers attacking him?
Count # Ball CS SS F HIP-OIP Neutral 148 63 63 1 7 5-9 Ahead 175 60 29 4 44 18-21 Behind 254 111 15 13 55 22-38
Count # FA CU SL CH Neutral 148 0.68 0.11 0.08 0.13 Ahead 175 0.75 0.03 0.03 0.17 Behind 254 0.53 0.11 0.13 0.18
CS: called strike, SS: swinging strike; F: foul; HIP: Hits In Play, OIP: Outs In Play, FA: fastball, CU: curveball, SL: slider, CH: changeup
The results and pitches seen were separated by the types of counts rather than each individual count because certain counts lacked sufficient data to merit standing on their own. The same can be said for the types of pitches seen; he’s seen some cutters and splitters, but they’ve been so few and far between that it made little sense to include them. The counts were assigned to these categories based on their linear weights run expectancy. Starting with the lone neutral count, 0-0, Furcal is seeing fastballs 68 percent of the time, and has taken 85 percent of all first pitches thrown. On the rare occasion that he does swing at the first pitch, via the data recorded by the Pitch F/X system, he has only missed one pitch and has had some success getting hits.
His numbers when ahead and behind generally reflect our statistical and game theory intuitions: when behind, he sees a greater percentage of off-speed pitches, as pitchers want to put him away. When ahead, he sees predominantly fastballs, as pitchers do not want to either walk this speedster or fall too far behind. His numbers when ahead are better than when he’s behind, but his numbers when behind are still pretty darn good.
Being a switch-hitter, Furcal does not have to worry about like-handed pitchers having any sort of automatic advantage over him. For starters, here is a breakdown of what lefties have thrown him:
LHP # B CS SS F HIP-OIP FA 127 48 26 2 32 10-19 CU 23 16 2 2 2 1-0 SL 13 5 3 0 3 1-1 CH 41 14 7 2 5 5-8
Lefties have primarily used the fastball against Furcal, opting to go with the changeup or cambio as a nice alternative. They rarely throw curveballs or sliders and, when they do, a large majority have been balls.
Now, here is what righties have thrown him so far this season:
RHP # B CS SS F HIP-OIP FA 223 89 43 3 45 18-24 CU 25 14 6 2 1 0-2 SL 38 13 9 3 5 3-5 CH 53 25 6 4 6 6-6
Though he has seen more pitches from righties, the frequency rates are extremely similar–the numbers of curveballs and sliders have changed, but their aggregate percentage has essentially stayed the same.
I find it extremely useful to visualize where these pitches have come it at Furcal, as well as where he has produced the most or least. Make sure to remember that these location charts are from the vantage point of the catcher. Here are the location charts of the fastballs that Furcal has seen:
Batting lefty, where Furcal has seen the majority of pitches, righty hurlers are favoring the outside corner with their heaters. From the opposite side, much more balance exists and a higher percentage of pitches have been in the zone. Because the vast majority of the pitches thrown to Furcal have been fastballs, and more of these fastballs have been in the strike zone while batting from the right side, it would make sense that his performance would be better as a righty. Here are his statistics split by his hitting handedness:
While he has technically performed better as a righty, given that this isn’t a huge sample I would be much more inclined to call the splits even.
Next, here are the location charts of the curveballs thrown his way:
While batting lefty, more curveballs have found the strike zone, although it appears that the umpires missed a few calls. In contrast, here are where the sliders seen have landed:
Furcal has not seen many sliders when facing lefty pitchers, so nothing can really be learned from their locations. When facing righty pitchers, many more sliders have landed in the zone than out, and Furcal has made contact with half of the non-ball offerings.
Lastly, here are the location charts of changeups seen:
It should be fairly evident that both groups of pitches have challenged him with changeups towards the outside corner. He doesn’t swing and miss much against any particular pitch, so we can assume that the changeups have not fooled him much; he has made contact with 62 percent of the non-ball changeups.
Sticking with the type of pitches thrown to Furcal, I decided to look at his results based on the different types of pitch sequencing and selection. The sequencing and selection in discussion refers to the mix (or lack thereof) of pitches seen in a given plate appearance. There were a few plate appearances with missing data which were discarded; one-pitch plate appearances were also discarded. They remaining PA were divided into four groups: All Fastballs (All FA), Mostly Fastballs (Most FA), Mix for when the spread of fastballs and off-speed pitchers are even, and Mostly Offspeed (Most OS).
vs. RHP H-AB Notes All FA 9-16 2 x 2B, HR, 5 x BB Most FA 3-17 2B, 4 x BB Mix 7-17 2 x 2B, 3B, HR, 2 x BB Most OS 5-16 3 x 2B, BB
Although it would not be statistically sound to suggest any one plan of attack method is a surefire way to “get” Furcal, he has posted his worst numbers when righties throw mostly fastballs with an occasional off-speed pitch mixed in. He feasts in plate appearances consisting solely of fastballs and, while we cannot say either of these situations should be exploited or avoided, in the early going it would be wise to attempt to test the validity of the results. Perhaps he will thrive in plate appearances with mostly fastballs as the season goes on, or perhaps these results will hold true and this will be a weakness.
Quality of Pitchers Faced
Another interesting aspect worth examining deals with the types of pitchers he has faced; going up against Jake Peavy and Brandon Webb is much tougher than, say, Calvin Maduro and Michael Mimbs. (Who? Exactly.) Using the PERA statistic found on the PECOTA cards I classified his pitchers faced with the simple labels of “good” and “bad.” Primitive, yes, but it gets the job done. The cutoff for PERA was 4.40; anyone above goes into the bad category, and anyone below goes into the good category. Also, PERA was chosen over ERA because it does a much better job at predicting future performance.
As in any season, there are of course players outperforming their projections. It would not be accurate to use current performance as the indicator of pitcher quality, though, because as Mitchel Lichtman discovered, those with hot or cold starts generally regress to their updated projection as the season goes on. Here are Furcal’s numbers split by quality of pitchers faced:
Bad # B CS SS F HIP-OIP FA 214 80 39 2 47 17-29 CU 37 23 6 4 2 1-1 SL 30 7 8 2 5 4-4 CH 72 31 9 4 10 7-11
Good # B CS SS F HIP-OIP FA 155 59 33 3 33 11-16 CU 11 7 2 0 1 0-1 SL 21 11 4 1 3 0-2 CH 22 8 4 2 1 4-3
… and here are the end-result statistics, split by quality of pitchers faced:
Type AVG OBP SLG OPS 2B-3B HR BB-K Good .357 .481 .643 1124 4 2 10-5 Bad .375 .434 .591 1025 10 3 9-10
Though a handful of plate appearances are missing due to missing or limited data, he does not appear to discriminate against either type of pitcher. The raw figures against bad pitchers are higher primarily due to having approximately double the opportunities.
Since, among the pitches thrown to him, Furcal has seen a large majority of fastballs, are there certain areas of the hitting zone he suffers in more than others? The hitting zone was divided into nine different quadrants: Up and Away, Up, Up and In, Middle and Away, Middle, Middle In, Down and Away, Down, Down and In. Using the linear weights of pitch results in specific counts as well as hit/out events, it was discovered that, as a lefty, Furcal is has been very adept at hitting fastballs Up and Away, Middle and Away, right down the Middle, as well as Up and In. As a righty it is essentially the same; he hits fastballs the best when they are Up and In, down the Middle, Middle and Away, and Down and Away. In fact, Down and Away while batting right-handed has been his most productive zone.
Though these results are similar to the others in the sense that we are still unable to determine anything is guaranteed to be a successful strategy, he has struggled against both types of pitchers in the Middle In and Down and In quadrants.
Furcal has missed the last several games with back spasms, and it comes as no surprise that the Dodgers have gone 1-4 in that span. Though Furcal’s absence cannot be directly linked to the team’s recent struggles, he has been one of the top offensive players in the league, let alone his own team. He should be back in the lineup soon, and it will be very interesting to see if his injury lingers throughout the season or has any sort of effect on his production. His offensive output may suffer from the time off as well, as a hot streak likely to regress as the season goes on may do so more quickly when it’s being resumed by a player iced by injury and/or inactivity.
Though everything still suffers from small sample size syndrome, it is definitely clear Furcal has been able to hit pitchers of all qualities and all handedness; he has also been able to produce whether ahead or behind in the count, and against any type of pitch. This may not last all year, but Furcal is currently in the midst of arguably the best stretch of his career. If the Dodgers want to be serious about contending this year, Raffy will need to be back on the field and continue to produce at an All-Star level, even if that level is slightly worse than the torrid MVP-worthy level he’s produced in the early going.
Eric Seidman is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.